Born to Win (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Junkie needs his fix.

J.J. (George Segal) is a former hairdresser now residing on the streets due to his heroin addiction. To help pay for his expensive habits he agrees to transport drugs for Vivian ( Hector Elizondo) which gets him into deeper trouble with the criminal underworld. Eventually two cops (Ed Madsen, Robert De Niro) catch up with him and agree to strike a deal, which will allow him to avoid jail time if he agrees to turn Vivian and his cohorts in. J.J. though is more concerned with getting his next fix and nothing else matters not even the hot young chick Parm (Karen Black) who he has just moved in with.

There were many 70’s films, some might say too many, dealing with the drug addiction theme. Some were quite compelling while most of the others were highly clichéd. This one though takes a slightly different angle by injecting comedy into the proceedings and surprisingly it works. J.J.’s conversation with an older woman cashier (Sylvia Syms) about enemas, which he does in order to distract her from seeing his buddies stealing the company’s safe, is quite amusing. The best part though is when J.J. is stripped naked and forced to wear nothing but a woman’s bathrobe and then when he’s held prisoner in an apartment bedroom he flashes a young woman from across the street in order to get her attention to call the cops, but instead she proceeds to just flash him back, which is a laugh-out-loud moment especially when the viewer later gets to see Segal running down the city’s streets in the pink bathrobe with startled pedestrians looking on.

The film though fails when it tries to get serious. The dramatic moment where J.J.’s friend Billy (Jay Fletcher) takes some corrupted heroin and it kills him gets botched. Maybe it’s just me as I’ve seen many movies, but I could tell where this scene was headed right from the start and the intended ‘shock’ and ‘surprise’ of it instead becomes boring and overly played-out.

Karen Black’s presence helps. Her character is quite goofy to the point that she gets turned-on by J.J. when she catches him trying to steal her car and even invites him back to her place afterwards. Normally this behavior would be considered too wacky to be believable, but Black’s ability to channel her inner freak gives the whole thing an authentic feel and her later conversations dealing with how many men she has slept with is a gem as well.

Segal’s performance is solid, but we never effectively get inside his character’s head. The film would’ve been far stronger had we seen what his life was like before he became an addict and the jarring contrast in his lifestyles could’ve made for a powerful statement, which unfortunately is lacking. We also never get to see him actually putting the needle into his arm. We see at one point the needle marks in his skin, but seeing him taking the drug would’ve hit the message home visually.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending is frustrating as he is given a bag of heroin that he knows may be tainted and ultimately will kill him if he takes it and yet it is left wide open as to whether he tries it or not. The idea that someone would be so strung out to get a high that they would knowingly take something that they knew could instantly kill them is an intriguing quandary that needed to be answered and the fact that it doesn’t is why this film despite a few good moments ultimately misses-the-mark.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: December 1, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 28Minutes

Rated R

Director: Ivan Passer

Studio: United Artists

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

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